Contains mild spoilers.
Now there's two ways of looking at this Monogram Pictures sequel to the 1941 zombie comedy King of the Zombies. The first is that it's really just another barely adequate seventy year old low budget thriller with unconvincing acting, and a hackneyed, long winded story full of all the charms of racial segregation, servitude and the perfectly acceptable misogyny that came with the times. The second is that Revenge of the Zombies is quite the uncredited gem playing more than a passing role in establishing the many of zombie tropes and idioms we now take for granted. King of the Zombies may still have had one foot firmly rooted in the Haitian voodoo zombie origin myth but there were hints of a more western scientific narrative. Revenge of the Zombies took the next logical step, shrugging off magic and the devil all together, fusing the idea and myth of the Haitian Vodou slave with Shelley's more western scientific methodology of reanimation, arguably for the first time.
Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) accompanied by his friend Larry Adams (Robert Lowery) have arrived at a small retreat in the swamps near New Orleans to investigate the sudden death of his sister Lila von Altermann (Veda Ann Borg), which local family friend Dr. Harvey Keating (Barry Macollum) believes suspicious. Dr. Max Heinrich von Altermann (John Carradine) is courteous and welcomes the three men, and their servant, Jeff, the returning Mantan Moreland into his home where he shows them her body and promises a quick funeral. Behind the scenes of course he's the nefarious mad evil (albeit here it's ideological and political rather than being league with Satan) scientist, his motivations are entirely morally lacking and goal driven and it's not long before the usual cat and mouse, room to room intrigue and subterfuge with everyone showing restraint and decorum befitting those in high society when they actually all get together.
There's nothing new, it's all a bit over done and even for a just an hour long it manages to over stays its welcome. Lila disappears, Lila reappears, there's suspicion, accusation then rinse and repeat. Each actor plays their one dimensional caricatures as well as could be expected. Mantan Moreland reprieves his role from King of the Zombies as light relief breaking the scenes of serious drama with his slap stick style, quick and witty banter and contemporary, even subversive style demonstrating yet again why if he had been born a different colour he would have been an undoubted comic legend. However, what the film makes up for against the trite narrative is the occasional iconic scene and the paradigm shift in reimagining our zombie friends free of magic, hypnosis and new world influence.
Well, almost. First off, it's New Orleans, the heritage home of Vodou and the zombie but that doesn't mean magic is in the air. The zombies of Dr. Max are reanimated by science. Drugs, electricity, the idea that a body once mature retains the ability to be restarted are his methods of reanimation, the careful paralysis of parts of the human brain are those that gain him control. 'Against an army of zombies', he tells his Nazi confident, 'no armies could stand. Even blown half to bits, undaunted by fire and gas, zombies would fight on so long as the brain cells' that receive and execute commands, still remained intact.' Writer Edmond Kelso, allowed to continue to expand his ideas from King of the Zombies might well be responsible for establishing quite the set of zombie staples.
The zombies of director Steve Sekely's film might well be impervious reanimated machines built for fighting but they're still very firmly slaves under the control of a master. There's no flesh eating or rabid primal driving, they're workers able to reply to orders and perform all manner of rudimentary tasks implying their memories and cognitive abilities are still very much intact. There's also the indication that full self-aware reanimation would actually be possible with Lila seemingly able to retain some of her will and even the ability to 'turn' Max's army of zombies back onto him. The narrative for this control is still quite confusing and incoherent and it's never explained why the zombies were able to return to their eternal slumber once their master was killed but it did lend itself for quite the atmospheric final scene in the same graveyard that was saw the dead rise at the start, this time close the crypt's door.
Credit must be given for breaking the given notion that zombies are inexorably tied to voodoo and magic, hinting at a more western and contemporary approach to thinking about the walking dead in terms of chemicals and science and atmospherically it does a lot right but ultimately Revenge of the Zombies can't shrug off its dismal cliché story, shallow characterisation and pedestrian acting. A low budget war time film it's not bad per-se and Mantan Moreland does shine, but this undoubted piece of important zombie cinema is denied any real esteem by just being a bit too ordinary, 4/10.